Marshall Applewhite and the Heavens Gate.
Marshall Herff Applewhite was born May 17, 1931 in Spur, Texas to Louise Haeker Winfield and Marshall Herff Applewhite Sr.
Marshall had two older sisters (Louise Winant Applewhite who was born in 1927 and Jane in 1929) and one younger brother (John Winfield born in 1942). His father was a Presbyterian minister. While growing up, Marshall’s father moved around frequently starting new churches in various locations of Texas. As a teenager, Marshall Applewhite wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and preach. His sister Louise described him growing up as funny, charismatic, and an overachiever. He went to Corpus Christi High School (now known as Roy Miller High School) where he was on the honor roll and amongst the head of his class.
“He was usually president of everything. He was always a born leader and very charismatic. He could get people to believe anything” his sister had said. His sister also recalls, “He was quite the family comic at times. He knew how to do something he called an elephant walk that would always get everyone laughing.”
In high school, Marshall joined the school choir and discovered an early talent he had with music. In 1950, at the age of 19, he enrolled at the Austin College in Sherman, Texas and pursued a degree in Music and Pre-Theology with the encouragement from his father and sisters. He received a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English and a minor in Music. After graduating in 1954, Marshall was drafted in the United States Army. He was stationed in Salzburg, Austria, and later in White Sands, New Mexico, where he became a Signal Corps instructor. He received an honorable discharge after two years’ service and achieved the rank of Sergeant.
After leaving the service, Marshall became a college music teacher. He later played starring roles in stage musicals in Colorado and Texas and was the choir director at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. He sang 15 roles with the Houston Grand Opera and went on to teach music at the University of Alabama.
“He had a beautiful voice. He had sung in a few operas and had also taught music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He was a very loving, wonderful brother,” Louise described.
In July of 1952, Marshall married a woman from Corpus Christi by the name of Ann Frances Pearce. They had two children together; a son by the name of Mark, who was born in 1957 and a daughter named Lane Ann (known as Mary) born in 1959. Throughout the 1960′s, Marshall lived a somewhat conventional lifestyle. He obtained the American Dream and had a loving family of four with a very promising future.
The only problem was that Marshall Applewhite was a homosexual.
Applewhite was known to be a sharp dresser with an exquisite taste for convertibles and fine liquor. He became a fixture of the Houston Art scene as well as a part of its gay community.
“Everybody knew Herff”, said Houston gay activist and radio host Ray Hill. (Applewhite’s friends knew him as Herff.)
In 1970, Marshall Applewhite was fired from his job as the music professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston when school officials learned he was having an affair with a male student. The Rev. William Young, a former president of the Catholic college, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1997 that school officials denied firing Applewhite for his “morals problem.” The school listed “health problems of an emotional nature” as the reason for the firing him.
After leaving the University, Marshall Applewhite filed for divorce and left his two children with their mother. He was reported to have checked himself into a psychiatric hospital where he hoped to find a cure for his homosexual desires. At that time, many therapists believed that one could change a person’s sexual orientation with aversian therapy of naseau and shock treatment. Ego-dystonic homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychological Association at the time, and is still considered a mental illness by the World Health Organization today. Other reports say that he admitted himself because of depression and hearing voices. His sister tells a different story in which she explained he was hospitalized for a heart ailment and that he had a near death experience. According to Jacques Vallée in his 1979 book Messengers of Deception, he also states that Applewhite was recovering from a heart attack.
In March of 1972, Marshall Applewhite met a 44 year old nurse by the name of Bonnie Lu Nettles Truesdale. Bonnie was raised as a Baptist with a strong knowledge of the Bible and an unusual interest in new age religion. She was an eccentric mother of four who had been married to a businessman for 23 years with a mostly stable relationship. She was a member of the Theosophic Society; a meditation group that channeled messages from the spirit world. Her marriage had recently ended for reasons still unknown. The New York times reported one of the reasons to be an “overpopulation of spirits”. Bonnie had a belief that a 19th century monk by the name of “Brother Francis” would speak to her and give her instructions. Every Wednesday she held a “circle group” at her house in which she would conduct séances with mediums in order to contact other “deceased spirits”. She frequented many fortune tellers who told her that she would meet a “mysterious man” who was “tall with light hair and a fair complexion”. According to the writings of Applewhite, he claims he was “visiting a hospitalized friend when Mrs. Nettles entered the room and their eyes locked in a shared recognition of esoteric secrets.” Terrie Nettles (one of Bonnie’s daughters) tells a different story, “The two met at a drama school in a theater.” Terrie also claims that Applewhite had been teaching in the school, while one of Bonnie’s sons was attending.
Bonnie and Marshall shared an instant chemistry when they first met. They believed they were each other’s soul mates. She did an astrological reading for Applewhite, from which she found they had an alignment between their stars. They both believed their meeting was that of a “heavenly connection” and that they were put on Earth for a spiritual mission together. Marshall Applewhite was in debt, divorced, and estranged from his children. He had no job and was losing his faith while battling depression. He found salvation in Bonnie. She introduced him to the world of mysticism and theosophy. Throughout their partnership, they abandoned their human names and started calling one another “Bo and Peep”, “The Two”, “Guinea and Pig”, and finally settled on “Do and Ti”.
In 1973, Applewhite received a vision, founded in the biblical book of Revelation, Chapter 11, which tells of God’s two witnesses, prophesizing for 260 days:
After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to run an inspirational bookstore, on January 1, 1973, Bonnie Nettles left her four children and husband and started to wander the country with Marshall Applewhite. They both became so caught up in each other’s beliefs and missions that they started to ignore “Earth’s law.” They simply felt that laws no longer pertained to them. Nettles told Applewhite that he possessed special astrological attributes. Applewhite in return declared himself the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
On Oct. 9, 1973, the couple visited the town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky and skipped out on a $20 motel bill. While there, they checked into the old Holiday Inn on Fort Campbell Boulevard (now the Econo Lodge) where they made a lasting impression as a mysterious couple with no luggage and without a car. The following morning a maid found a note in their room in which they wrote:
From occupants of 47:On the Holiday Inn letterhead, they changed the wording from “The Nation’s Innkeeper” to “Innkeeper of the Universe.”
Thank you for permitting us accommodations in your inn. It would be impossible to explain to you who we are, where we come from, and who we represent. If we tried, you would not believe us. We exist in another dimension, which does not allow for the use of currency. We are on the planet for a few more months and our mission is for good. It would be useless for people to attempt to treat us as they would their own or to bring us harm, for it would result only in their death. This note is true and certainly not to be understood as threatening but as thanks for accommodations. This information should be kept in the strictest of confidence for your best interests. You will be rewarded well for your cooperation.”
While on the road, the couple worked menial jobs and would often donate their blood to get by. They tried to talk to people, but were finding it difficult to get others to follow their vision. After a year and half on the road, they both returned to Houston to pick up one of their first disciples by the name of Sharon Morgan. She abandoned her husband and two daughters (one of which was 2 years old) to go on the road with the couple. After a month of traveling while racking up her credit card bills and renting a car that they failed to return, she started to have her doubts. When they returned to Houston, she went back to her family.
On August 28th 1974 Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were arrested for credit card fraud in Harlington, Texas. The charges were dropped. However, Marshall was then charged for the theft from the car that he rented from St. Louis which he had never returned. He spent 6 months in jail. While in jail, he had the time to further develop his manifesto into a more clear and polished version. His new vision included that they would not take their bodies with them in death. Death would provide them with new bodies within the sacred furnace of space, where they were to be resurrected in a “cloud of light,” which he interpreted as a spaceship.
After Marshall Applewhite was released, they both went back on the road. Only this time, they had a little bit more success. More people started to take their ideas seriously. In May of 1975, they went to Los Angeles, California and had a meeting with a group of meditation enthusiasts. They convinced two dozen people to follow them, and that spaceships would someday arrive to carry their spirits away. With their first group formed, they went ahead and traveled to Wyoming to set up a new base at a local campground.
In September of 1975, the group stopped in the small seaside town of Waldport, Oregon to lecture on the topic ”U.F.O.’s — why they are here, who they have come for, when they will leave.” Packed in a small motel hall, 150 people gathered to hear Applewhite speak. At that time, his audience amounted to one-fourth of the entire population of the town.
”It was a big joke to start with — there was a picture in the paper of the Mayor throwing a flying saucer,” recalled Leta Haslett, a longtime resident. ”Then, people started disappearing…” ”People became concerned — these were our friends and acquaintances, and they left with just the clothes on their backs,” Mrs. Haslett explained.
Around 20 people had left the town to join the cult. They were going to Grand Junction, Colorado for a gathering with more than 400 others to seek an eventual rendezvous with a “real” U.F.O. Town meetings were held, and the Oregon State Police began to start an investigation. However, within no time, the investigation was closed when they realized that no laws had been broken. As frustrating as it was, it was not against the law for an adult to give away all their possessions, to cut off all their family ties, and to join a cult.
The “real” U.F.O. never visited Grand Junction, Colorado. But that didn’t stop people from wanting to believe. Within no time, the newly formed cult had accumulated over one hundred followers and started getting a lot more serious attention from the media. In the summer of 1976, the group gathered at the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming. All of the members were told that smoking cigarettes and pot, drinking alcohol, and having sex was to be forbidden. If they were not okay with that, then they were to leave. One of the new members had a trust fund of more than $300,000 that contributed generously to the organization. At that time, Applewhite started getting very strict on enforcing group discipline. Members had to sign out to get their driver’s license and car keys before they could leave the compound. One disciple recalls “Tomb Time” in which members would not be allowed to speak to each for days on end. In some cases, tuning forks would be tapped to their heads in order to dispel any human thoughts. Each member would be assigned a partner in which they would do everything together — including eating, sleeping, and all of their daily work routines. To insure that partners would not get too close, or romantically involved, members were set up with partners that they would least likely be attracted to. They were then rotated with new partners on a regular basis. Bonnie Nettles contributed with imposing her own strict orders, in which all the cult members had to have all their daily routines planned out to the minute.
“It was like the military,” said Dick Joslyn, who was a cult member for 15 years starting in 1975. “There were all these procedures that drove some people crazy.”
Over a 9-month period in 1975, Applewhite, Nettles, and small groups of their followers traveled to nearly all 50 states and parts of Canada. Applewhite and Nettles became the subject of a book called “U.F.O. Missionaries Extraordinary”. The group used a variety of names in which to call themselves throughout the years. Before the name Heaven’s Gate was used, they were known as the “Human Individual Metamorphosis” ( HIM ) and “The Total Overcomers”. Applewhite and Nettles told an interviewer from the Times magazine in 1976 that they were beings from outer space, incarnate in human bodies, with a mission to teach others about the possibility of reaching a new stage of existence. They were also mentioned in a book in 1979 called “Messengers of Deception” by Jacques Valee. There is a quote in the book by a woman who had met “The Two” (Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles) stating: “These two people are dangerous. It is not hypnosis. It is thought transplant.”
Sometime in 1976, due to public scrutiny, the couple started to keep a low profile and went underground. Bonnie Nettles announced to the group they will no longer hold public meetings. Many people left the group the following year, and its numbers dropped from 100 to two dozen. The couple dropped the names “Bo” and “Peep” at that time. Nettles then began to call herself “Ti”, while Applewhite called himself “Do”. The group had their last public meeting in Oregon at the Portland State University in Lincoln Hall. The interest was poor for the event and not more than a dozen people had attended. They started to send their followers out to travel the country as their missionaries. At it’s peak, the cult had over 200 members. At that time, Marshall and Bonnie began to weed out their followers and only keep the most obedient and dedicated. Members were subjected to several unusual diets and were required to keep their hair short while uniformly wearing baggy clothing. Lying and breaking the rules were considered major offenses. The cult spent several years living at various campsites in different locations. The day to day activities for new members were structured with teaching and daily chores. They started a program called “The Classroom”, a behavior and belief modification course that was meant to strip them of their human and worldly emotions and beliefs. The most dedicated followers stayed in the classroom for up to 3 years before they moved to a domesticated commune. By the beginning of the 1980′s, the cult moved indoors and started renting housing in several different regions, including the Dallas, Texas area. The trust fund was starting to get low for them and many had to get jobs. During that time, the group made over 500 audio tapes and 11 video tapes of their secluded classroom teachings.
Sometime during this period, Applewhite and Nettles allegedly inherited a couple hundred thousand dollars. Where the money came from and how much the couple exactly received was uncertain. They took the money and moved the cult in the middle of the night into a couple of suburban houses in Denver, Colorado. They sealed off the windows so they could wear their uniforms in private, and still maintain their strict order of discipline and planned activities to the detail. Not every cult member followed the rules. The ultimate punishment for breaking them was excommunication from the cult. The banished would receive a paid ticket to wherever they wanted to go. Unlike most cults, the members of Heaven’s Gate were always free to leave the group at any time. Most of them did. A lot of them would return after not wanting to cope with life on the outside.
In 1983, tragedy fell upon the cult, when Bonnie Nettles had to have one of her eyes surgically removed. The doctor informed her that she had cancer and it was spreading to other parts of her body. She responded to the doctor that he was “ignorant” and believed, along with Applewhite, that she could not die. She and Marshall Applewhite were to “ascend” together. The cancer spread to her liver and two years later she died at the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas at the age of 57. As a patient, she used the alias “Shelly West”. Applewhite convinced the rest of the group that her “broken-down vehicle was left behind” and he had her body cremated. Her ashes were then spread in a lake somewhere in Texas. Many followers deserted the group when Bonnie Nettles died. Applewhite fell into a state of depression for the next few years.
In 1989, Applewhite and the remaining members of the group emerged back with an intense fury and a media blitz. They went ahead and set up information brochures and sent them out to various targeted audiences. Heaven’s Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and rejuvenated), and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately.
Over the next 6 years, Marshall and his group created a website and released 12 instructional videos that detailed their mandates and how to ascend to the next level. In May of 1993, the group published widespread newspaper adds advertising the “Final Offer” — the last chance to learn how to ascend. This included a 1/3 page advertisement in USA Today on May 27, 1993. The group became even more structured and periodically moved to various locations in California, Colorado, and New Mexico, until finally moving to a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
The group paid $7,000 in cash each month for rent to the owner of the property, an Iranian businessman by the name of Sam Koutchesfahani. The location of the mansion was at 18241 Colina Norte (later the street name and address was changed to 18239 Paseo Victoria). The 9,200 square-foot mansion sat on three acres and had every amenity imaginable. (Rancho Santa Fe sits in the wealthiest zip code in the United States.) The owner only ever knew the members of the group by the names “Father John” and “Brother Logan”. They told him that they came from the Midwest and that they did not believe that the government should have any authority over them. They claimed to have no Social Security numbers and did not use any bank accounts.
According to a neighbor, Koutchesfahani told him that “he rented it to members of a cult”, and that “they were paying him in cash because they didn’t want to pay taxes”.
When the cult lived there, everything in the house was labeled. Every light switch, electrical outlet, shelf, cupboard, jar and container had a small label stating exactly what it turned on or contained inside. Applewhite wanted to create an environment where all the thinking was already done. No cult member was allowed to be alone. Monitoring devices were everywhere. Even when cult members spoke on the phone, someone was there to monitor the conversation. While living at the mansion, members participated in various rituals in which they had to report to their superiors every 12 minutes. On other days, they were required to wear a cone on their heads — as they would in their alien bodies. In another particular ritual they called “a tone”, group members were to keep themselves focused on a specific tone produced from a tuning fork at all times while doing their activities. The idea was to keep the group members focused on the “Next Level” and to ignore all human thoughts. Many common words were also changed so that members would not remember their human past. House became “Craft” and the kitchen became “Nutri-lab”. The group ran a self supportive respectable web design business, known as “Higher Source” which designed commercial home pages for the Internet. Their neighbors and other acquaintances said the group kept quiet and clannish.
“They definitely seemed odd”, said Tom Goodspeed, director of a local polo club for whom the group designed an internet home page. “But living in California, odd is nothing strange for us. They seemed to me to be well within the norms of being able to handle society.”
In order to fight off any sexual desires and to live a strict life of celibacy, some male members resorted to castration. There seem to be various stories about the exact time and full details. One story explains that in 1993, at the toss of a coin, one of the members agreed to go down to Mexico and have his testicles removed. The result was a botched operation that gave him extreme swelling and a considerable amount of pain afterwards. Applewhite was then reported to have had himself castrated to lead the way for the others. Another story explains that Marshall had himself castrated after two other members had quietly went down to Mexico to have the procedure done. Five other members had themselves castrated after Applewhite. One of the former disciples explained that they “couldn’t stop smiling and giggling” after the procedure.
Marshall Applewhite saw various natural disasters like the eruption of Mount St. Helens and other earthquake occurrences as possible signs of when the group should make their final move to ascend. However, it wasn’t until July of 1995 when he listened to the late-night Art Bell radio show that Applewhite heard the final message he was looking for. There was news that there was a “companion UFO” trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp. An amateur astronomer from Houston by the name of Chuck Shramek, called the Art Bell program to report that he had taken a photograph which showed a large object behind the comet. He described the object to be up to four times the size of Earth. The next night, Courtney Brown, a tenured professor of political science at Emory University and director of the Farsight Institute in Atlanta, was a guest on Bell’s show and claimed that three “remote viewers” associated with his institute had confirmed Shramek’s findings and had determined it to be a metallic object full of aliens. After the show, Brown sent Art Bell a picture of the comet with the companion UFO that he said was taken from a “top-ten university” astronomer that he knew. The condition was that Art Bell was not to post the image on his website until the astronomer had the chance to have the news conference about it. The news conference never took place and two months later, Art Bell posted the picture. The next day he was contacted by Oliver Hainut and David Tholen, two professors from the University of Hawaii, who let him know that the image was a fake. They provided a comparison of one of their recent comet photos to show that Brown’s image was a doctored copy of one of theirs. To this day, Courtney Brown has never revealed the name of the mysterious astronomer who took the photo and is also no longer welcome on the Art Bell show. Later on, the talk show host was questioned and put under fire about the show’s possible influence on the cult.
“I’m not going to stop presenting my material because there are unstable people”, Art Bell replied. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.”
Art Bell went on to explain that he doubted the cult members incorporated the “companion UFO” story into their final decision plan. He said that in the weeks following the Courtney Brown debacle, the “entire fraud was heavily exposed” and that the revelations all occurred two months before the Rancho Santa Fe incident. The Heaven’s Gate members also appeared to have been fully aware of the Hale-Bopp UFO debunking, as the first line of their Web site read: “Whether Hale-Bopp has a ‘companion’ or not is irrelevant from our perspective”. It is claimed that NASA knew about the case, but suppressed it from the public.
Regardless of the found information, Applewhite had decided to seize the opportunity to put his plans in order and began the cults shift to the “final exit”. In December of 1995, he spoke to the Heaven’s Gate group and explained to them that there was a spaceship behind the comet Hale-Bopp and that it was coming to Earth to take them away. He also explained that the deceased Bonnie Nettles was flying it. One member walked out, while 38 others stayed and seemed to have no problem with what he was telling them. Members went out and bought a telescope. They couldn’t see the ship themselves, but that didn’t seem to be very important. The group updated its Web site. “RED ALERT” flashed across the top; below came the announcement “HALE-BOPP BRINGS CLOSURE TO HEAVEN’S GATE”.
The owner of Oceanside Photo and Telescope in San Diego, reported that Applewhite and a cult member had bought a large astronomical telescope for thousands of dollars early in 1997 from his shop. The owner, Mike Fowler, could tell after listening to them for a bit, that they had little knowledge of astronomy. He thought that perhaps they had been watching too many episodes of Star Trek. After a week, they came back and returned the telescope, saying that they had not been able to see any spaceship. The owner offered them a refund and accepted the return.
To say the group made suicide notes, would be a serious understatement. It was more like they made “suicide press kits”. In a letter they sent to their landlord, they suggested that they were doing him a favor by creating a famous event that would make the house an invaluable shrine.
Marshall Applewhite and the Heavens Gate group made their last final video on March 19th 1997, “Do’s Final Exit”.
The video is broken down into 10 individual segments. In the first 5 parts of the video, Applewhite speaks in a calm and soft spoken voice and warns about the media who will talk about their final exit. He says that there will be individuals who will refer to it as a suicide and that “those individuals are ignorant of the evolutionary level above human”. He continues on to compare his actions to that of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. The video ends for a moment and then comes back with Applewhite introducing the class. The first person on camera is asked to stand up to model their uniform. The uniforms are all black and designed to conceal their human forms and gender. They are all very pale in skin color with short, cropped, crew-cut haircuts. A member shows off a triangular embroidered patch on his left sleeve of a comet with writing that reads “Heaven’s Gate – Away Team”. Applewhite continues to introduce the rest of the class asking some of them to smile to overcome their nervousness. Several of them are camera shy. He explains later that each one of the class members will be able to give their own individual last farewell statements. 21 women and 18 men are in the room and range in age from 26 to 72. The video continues on to the next day in which Applewhite explains the reason for the empty white chair that sits beside him and the fact that it is Bonnie Nettles who sits with him in spirit. He continues to talk further about the Heaven’s Gate philosophy, and when the appropriate time will be for others to exit their “vehicle”. The next video segment, titled “Students of Heaven’s Gate – Expressing their Thoughts before Exit”, shows two cult members sitting on matching white plastic chairs outside. The shirts they wear, are buttoned to the top and they casually speak of their own thoughts about the final exit and why they joined the cult. They are in the backyard of the mansion with a beautiful background scenery. Small birds chirp, while the California sun shines, and the trees blow gently in the breeze. Like Applewhite, the cult members shed their “Earthly” names and opt for new ones more appropriate of their missions. They all refer to each other with a name that ends in “ody”. Many of the members had been devoted to the group for over 20 years, while others had been with the group for a far shorter period of time. Perhaps the most gut wrenching of the last farewell statements, was that of a young female who was referred to as “Gldody”. She was extremely pale with dark circles around her eyes. She explains that she had been with the class for nearly 3 years. She looks down when she speaks, fighting back tears, and goes on to explain how grateful she is to be part of the group and how happy she is to leave the world. Her body language and forced smile tell a different tale. One by one, each of the members talk about their interest and past history with Heaven’s Gate throughout multiple segments of the video. Many of them expressed a genuine happiness and seemed eager to leave. A statement made by a cult member who was the brother of Michelle Nichols, an actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, said “I’m the happiest person in the world”.
On March 21, 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult members walked into the Marie Calendars restaurant located at 5980 Avenida Encinas and ate their last final meal. They called in ahead of time, on a Friday, and asked if the restaurant could accommodate a party of 39 on short notice. They could. After they had arrived, all of the cult members ordered the exact same meal — turkey pot pie, house salad with tomato-vinaigrette dressing, blueberry cheesecake and iced tea. When employees asked the group where they came from, they responded back with replies like “from the car” and “from all over”. Employees of the restaurant were struck by the group’s extreme politeness and watched them stack their plates at the end of their meal.
“Every time I set a dish of food in front of them, they oohed and aahed like it was the best thing they’d ever been served”, one of their servers explained.
At around 4pm, the group finished their meals and left. Their bill came to $351 and included a $26 tip. The restaurant manager was so taken with the group, that he stood at the doorway and shook each of the member’s hands as they left. “You could tell they didn’t go out a lot” a waiter later explained.
Four weeks prior, A Heaven’s Gate member by the name of Rio DiAngelo decided to leave the group. His real name, according to the police, was Richard Ford. He had first contact with the group in January of 1994, when he attended one of their meetings in a Californian hotel after the LA Weekly ran an article on the group which was known then as “The Total Overcomers”. “I’d just turned 40 and recently got divorced. I was trying to find meaning in life. The first thing I noticed when I attended the Heaven’s Gate meeting was how calm, happy and self-controlled they seemed. It was like they had found what I’d been searching for all my life.” He joined the group and on his first day, had his hair cut short and was given the new name ‘Neo’. Applewhite agreed with his decision and felt that it was part of the plan that DiAngelo stay behind. Rio was given a camera, a computer, $1,000 for living expenses and $12.50 for train fare back to Los Angeles. He then moved to Beverly Hills and started working for a web design company, called the Interactive Entertainment Group. Rio continued to correspond with Applewhite by email and phone. On March 27, 1997 he received a Fed-Ex package at his office.
”Even before I’d opened it I knew it had happened. I waited until I was home to open the parcel, which contained a video tape and a message. I didn’t have a video player at home, so I just opened the note”, Rio confessed. The message read: “By the time you read this, we will have exited our bodies”.
Rio DiAngelo then drove with his boss from Beverly Hills to the mansion in Rancho Sante Fe, California to discover the scene of the largest mass suicide on American soil.
“I entered through the kitchen. Everything was spotless, like always. But there was nothing going on; everything was quiet. Then, I turned the corner and saw the first body covered in a purple shroud on a mattress on the table. It was one of my best friends. I went upstairs, yelling for people in case anybody was still alive, but no one answered. There was a body in every room I went into. I forced myself to go into each room and check everyone. With each body I came across, the loss I felt became too much to bear. They were my closest friends who I loved dearly.”
Rio DiAngelo left the mansion and called the police. He called them from a pay phone in Carlsbad at about 1:30 pm. Police did not give the call any high priority because of the seemingly bizarre nature of the call, and that it was made anonymously. At 3 pm, dispatchers got a second phone call from a Beverly Hills detective who said two men had come into the station to report that 40 people were dead inside the home. Police were then dispatched and arrived at the mansion at 3:30 pm. “I don’t think anybody really believed what the person was saying” said Robert Brunk, a sheriff’s deputy who had just started his shift at the Encinitas police station. “It was an anonymous call to the communications center stating that 40 people had committed suicide and they were cult members. It came out as a ‘welfare check’ and they had held the call for a while because it was busy.” Brunk, who was dispatched to the address, was more concerned about what he was going to say to the occupants of the house when he arrived. “As I’m driving, I’m thinking to myself ‘How am I going to explain to the people that live there the purpose for my visit?”.
When the Deputy arrived at the address, he noticed that things seemed a little odd. All of the windows were closed and the curtains were drawn. The Deputy found an unlocked door on the side of the house and opened it. The stench nearly knocked him over. He shouted that he was with the Sheriff’s Department, then backed out and waited for another Deputy to arrive at the scene.
“We didn’t know what to expect going in there” Brunk had later said. “You start thinking of cults and all sorts of things start playing in your mind – animal and human sacrifice, that kind of thing. As we entered the house, we started seeing bodies that were covered up. Every room that you went into, we found more. Some were in bunk beds. They were all in their running suits with their ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’ patch on the sleeve. There was a computer flashing ‘Red Alert’ sort of like Star Trek. There was still a load of laundry in the machine. It was surreal.”
The lead investigator, Detective Rick Scully, compared the event to “being in the Twilight Zone”.
“We were wandering from room, to room, to room, and every room we went into we were finding bodies. You’re thinking, ‘When is this going to end? How many bodies are going to be in here? How many rooms are there to this place?’ — every room we went in had bodies stacked up like cordwood.” He remembered thinking at the time, “’How could people do this to each other. What kind of person led them to do this?’ — Then we got to the final room. Marshall Applewhite, aka Do. It was the upstairs master bedroom, a huge room, and he had the bedroom to himself. Great big bed. He’s all propped up with pillows around him. As soon as you walked in, you knew this guy was the head chief. He was the leader.”
Plastic bags had been tied over the cult members’ heads. All but two people had purple shrouds draped over their upper bodies. Many of them were lying on white and yellow comforters on metal bunk beds; some with eyeglasses folded neatly on the pillows. An abandoned wheel chair stood beside one of the beds. They all wore black Nike running shoes with the comet-like slash on the side. Each of them had packed a suitcase for their journey, and each had their drivers licenses, passports, and five dollars in their pockets. It had been determined that the suicides were performed in three cycles, or “waves”. 15 members died the first day, 15 the next day, and the remaining nine the third day. The first day most likely being 3 days before the bodies were discovered. The cult members “shed their earthly containers” by ingesting a lethal concoction of Phenobarbital, pudding, applesauce, and vodka. Members had mixed roughly 50 pills per person, with applesauce and pudding. Days before the event, Applewhite traveled down to Mexico with a few followers and bought enough of the drug for the entire group to consume. They washed it down with shots of vodka. Some of the cult members hadn’t ingested fatal enough amounts, so the plastic bags were tied over their heads to make sure they achieved their goal. The scenario did not seem violent, but rather peaceful. One officer described the scene as if the dead were sleeping.
San Diego Public Administrator Susan Jamme was asked to go through the personal effects of the cult members. She said that she was struck by how orderly the mansion was and found the seating chart especially significant.
“There was a prescribed seating arrangement for members of the group… even when you sat to watch TV, that decision had been made for you. What was shown on the big screen television was also chosen for the cult members. According to the list, they could watch 60 Minutes, Touched by an Angel, The X-Files, Chicago Hope, Star Trek’s Deep Space 9, and Voyager. There was also a list of movies, and next to each were the words OK or No. Those with an OK rating included Chain Reaction, Frighteners, Asteroids, Eddie, and Primal Fear. Those with a No included The Island of Dr. Moreau, Golden Eye, and Multiplicity. There weren’t any real comfort items; no overstuffed couches or La-Z-Boy chairs or anything like that. But it wasn’t an uncomfortable place…”.
Susan went on to explain their tastes in food were mainstream. “Pizzas, strip steaks, Java Chip ice cream… They had things you would think of in a family, or large family — and other than the quantity, there wasn’t anything that would lead you to believe they cooked in a steam kitchen kind of way. Household contents were carefully marked, and personal belongings bore the initials of their owners.” There was nothing, she said, to suggest this was “anything but a very neat and orderly group of people”.
Within no time, word of the mass suicide leaked and a media storm hit the mansion around 5 pm, the day the bodies were found. The local media arrived, followed by the next couple of hours of hundreds of reporters and photographers. The Academy Awards had been held two nights earlier and many of the national and international news crews had still been in town.
“I came over the hill and every person in the world was there” a police spokesperson described. “People were running up to me, asking what I knew. Local media, Korean, Japanese, German. … I had never experienced anything like that.”
The next day, the Sheriff’s Department had a news conference and released a 90-second videotape of the mass suicide to the public. Due to the graphic nature of the footage, the decision to release the video had been under controversy within the Sheriff’s department. While unknown to the department at the time, Rio DiAngelo had already videotaped the scene in the mansion before he had called in. Behind the scenes, he was working out a deal with various media outlets, and in the process of selling it to the highest bidder. After the Sheriff’s Department released their video, they unintentionally made his video footage worthless. Consequently, Rio lost out on a massive payday.
In 1997, the story of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy became front-page news in nearly every newspaper in the world. The vast media coverage of the incident brought about a huge public awareness of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and of cults in general. Many television networks ran specials. Marshall Applewhite was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headlines, “Inside the Web of Death”. The television show, “Saturday Night Live”, made a parody of the event and the cult became the butt of jokes for some time. Ted Turner went on to call the mass suicide “a good way to get rid of a few nuts.”
The Scientist Hale (Bopp) himself, who discovered the comet, stated “Almost from day one, I have heard claims that the Hale-Bopp is an alien mother ship or is under intelligent control or some such… And now, this has been carried to an extreme. 39 people have now lost their lives as a result of this ignorance and superstition. Tonight… forget about the world for a minute, look up in the northwest and take a look at this comet. It’s a beautiful object. It’s lovely. It’s one of the most magnificent celestial objects you will ever see. But for all its beauty, its magnificence, its splendor, all it is, is a dirty snowball that’s orbiting the sun. Nothing more.”
On March 28, 1997, local police found a man dead in a trailer close to the small town of Marysville, California. The body was identified as Robert Nichols who was 58 years old. Nichols had previously been a roadie for the Grateful Dead. In a note that he left, he said that he intended to meet up with his friends in the Heaven’s Gate spaceship. He put a plastic bag over his head, and breathed in from a hose to the trailer’s gas flask. Nichols had covered himself with a purple cloth.
On May 6th, 1997, two more male cult members attempted suicide in a motel in Encinitas, California. They were found with small tote bags next to them, dressed in black outfits, wearing Nikes, with purple shrouds next to them. They each had five dollar bills in their pockets. Wayne Cooke of Las Vegas was found dead with a plastic bag on his head. Wayne had been a member for 20 years, but had left the group in 1994. He had expressed regret that he was not with them when they all died. His wife was one of those who committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe with the others. Chuck Humphrey of Denver was found still alive with a plastic bag near him. It was believed he had second thoughts, but nine months later, his body was found in a deserted tent in the Arizona desert. The coroners had pronounced his death as a suicide. The method of suicide was a plastic bag over the head, with a hose connected to the exhaust of his car.
It was later learned that Applewhite lifted the name “Final Exit” and the Heaven’s Gate suicide method from the book “Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying” by Derek Humphrey.
In 1991, the book was named the number one bestselling nonfiction book in America for 18 weeks and had sold over a million copies. Derek Humphrey, founder of the Hemlock Society, admitted that the lethal recipe used by the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate came from his book. One suicide method involves the use of Phenobarbital and plastic bags over the face. It includes a suggestion to stir the medication in pudding and to chase it down with vodka. Humphrey defended his book and organization and claimed that his recipes are meant only for the dying. He further explained, “I regret that it is a serious misuse of my book. Just like guns are misused for murder, my book has been misused here”. Faye Girsh, executive director of the Hemlock Society, in a telephone interview explained that their group does not advocate suicide. “We believe in legal, physician assisted suicide for terminally ill, mentally competent adults”, she explained. “We refer people who just want to commit suicides to suicide hotlines”. Girsh went on to explain that the society would continue to sell it’s books. “We hear from the terminally ill people. We hear of botched attempts. We want to make the right methods available. We really want to be out of this as soon as physician assisted suicide is legal”. Since then, the book has been translated into 12 different languages and has been banned only in the country of France. In April of 2007, the editors and book critics of the newspaper USA TODAY, selected “Final Exit” as one of the 25 most memorable books of the last quarter century.
The Cult Awareness Network, a support group for ex-cult members that was founded after the Jonestown Massacre, had categorized the Heaven’s Gate group as a destructive cult. In 1997, the Cult Awareness Network underwent a hostile takeover by the Church of Scientology. The church had long characterized the Cult Awareness Network as both an opponent of religious freedom and a “hate group”. After the takeover, the Heaven’s Gate group was removed from the list and the new Cult Awareness Network organization was restructured and renamed to “The Foundation for Religious Freedom”. In December of 1996, a Heaven’s Gate member “lah”, later identified as Sister Francis Michael, made a post in the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, saying “Thanks for Actions Against C.A.N”.
Today, The Cult Awareness Network organization is nothing but a front for the church of Scientology.
In March of 1997, Louis Theroux from the BBC television network, contacted the Heaven’s Gate cult while making a program for his “Weird Weekends” series of shows. Theroux was replied back to in an email, stating that Heaven’s Gate could not take part in his documentary as “at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on”.
The New York Times tried to get an interview with Applewhite’s former wife, Ann. She would not have anything to do with the press. Her present husband, Sam Nickerson, stated that his wife hadn’t heard from her ex-husband since he left her in 1964, and that his stepson hadn’t seen his father since he was 5.
“It was a different man who killed himself in California from the music teacher who married Ann – they didn’t even know it was him.”
In 1999, the San Diego county had decided to auction off the cars, televisions and furniture that belonged to the Heaven’s Gate cult. The money from the auction was to pay for the county administration costs and part of a $100,000 bill for funeral expenses of the cult members. The event created yet another media frenzy, with people from all over the world showing up. The money generated from the auction was supposed to go to family members to help them cover burial costs for their loved ones.
In April of 1998, under the non-profit name, the “Telah Foundation”, two former cult members filed a petition to block the auction proceedings. Mark and Sarah King of Phoenix, Arizona had left the cult 20 years earlier, but claimed to have still remained in contact with the group. They also claimed to have the full proprietary rights to the property left by Heaven’s Gate. The couple left the celibate cult 20 years ago so they could marry. They had produced letters from cult members, along with a map and a pass code to an Escondido storage locker, to show that the group had intended the couple to take possession of the property. They said the deceased members were concerned that their possessions might fall into the wrong hands. Superior Court Judge Lisa Guy-Schall rejected the former cult members’ claim and ordered the couple to pay $17,000 in county legal fees for filing a frivolous claim. After that decision, the lawyers for the couple approached county officials with an offer to drop their appeal if they could gain ownership of certain belongings. They reached a settlement with the county and paid $2,000 for the religious writings, artwork, a videotape, and more than 20 arm patches left behind by the group. The video left behind showed members talking about how they plan to catch a ride on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet to “reach a higher level of consciousness”. As part of the agreement, Mark and Sarah King had agreed not to sell the items. The couple went on to obtain the trademarks and copyrights for the all artwork, videotapes and Heaven’s Gate writings. The county contended that the rest of the property belonged to the owner of the estate. The deceased cult members’ families filed a $130,000 claim against the Heaven’s Gate estate owner to cover the burial costs and other outstanding debts they had occurred. At the time, the County Public Administrator estimated the estate net worth at around $50,000, but speculated the auction might take in a higher amount considering that the money generated would help recover surviving families’ costs. The county went though a series of negotiations with several of the cult members’ families and agreed that they would not exploit the sale by advertising the auctioned belongings as being from the Heaven’s Gate estate.
The entire Heaven’s Gate estate auction brought in $32,707, some of which had to pay for the auction itself. The items received by Mark and Sarah King, including the celestial paintings created by the Heaven’s Gate members and the patches embossed with the group’s triangular logo, could have easily brought in large sums of money.
J.D. Healy, co-owner of the Museum of Death, was present at the auction and described the items as “worth a ton of money. They hold significance, if just as historical references”.
“Owning one of those patches would be like getting a hold of one of John Dillinger’s guns. It would be like owning your own piece of American history.”
Weeks later, one of the purple shrouds believed to have been from the Rancho Santa Fe mansion, mysteriously showed up on the Museum of Death’s front door step. No one could declare its true authenticity or how it even got there. Present day, the purple shroud that was left on their doorstep, bunk beds from the mansion, cans of Comet Cleaner that were purchased from the estate, and other various items are all on display for the public to see at the museum.
In 1998, Sam Koutchesfahani, the owner of the mansion, was sentenced to prison for conspiracy and tax-evasion charges in a visa scam involving foreign students. Koutchesfahani had purchased the mansion in 1994 for $1.325 million. While it was occupied by the Heavens Gate members, it was on the market for $1.6 million. Every time a real estate agent had tried to show it, the cult members would explain that they had a religious meeting going on. A few days before the mass suicide, the agent was asked not to show the house because it was their “Holy Week”. After the Heavens Gate tragedy, the asking price for the mansion went up to just under 3 million dollars. Any interested buyers who wanted to walk through the mansion were charged a $300.00 “donation” to the seller’s choice of charity. The estate included a pool, tennis court, sauna, elevator, putting green, and a limousine garage.
In 1998, the Seattle-based Washington Mutual Bank took over the property through a foreclosure.
In June of 1999, the company Rancho Santa Fe Groves, Inc. bought the 9,000 square-foot Mediterranean-style home for it’s “land value” price of $668,000 — less than half of the $1.6 million asking price before the suicides. The company that purchased the estate was led by the developer William L. Strong Jr. who happened to reside on the same street and was a neighbor.
“We believe the valuation doesn’t take into account the impairment that resulted from the fact that 39 people took their lives there” said Tim McGarry, a bank representative in Los Angeles. “We sold it at the highest price possible, given its history”.
Shortly after the purchase, the neighbor had the entire 3.1 acre site bull-dozed, except for the tennis court, and built a luxurious “dream estate” on the property. With the area being one of the highest income communities in the United States, the new mansion was built to include a theatre, billiard’s room, wine cellar, 5 bedroom suites in the main estate, a detached 1 bedroom guest house, a paneled library, a master spa bath with heated stone floors, and a gym. After the mansion was built, it was put on the market for just under $10 million. The street name and house number was changed from 18241 Colina Norte to 18239 Paseo Victoria. The new mansion was reported to have been rented out for $25,000.00 a month, until it sold on January 13th 2010, for $4.6 million cash.
The Heaven’s Gate website exists today at www.HeavensGate.com. It is now owned and operated by Mark and Sarah King, the 2 former cult members who claimed to have the full proprietary rights to Heaven’s Gate and later copyrighted all the materials. A mirror site also exists that was created by a past cult member, Chuck Humphrey (Rkkody), before he committed suicide. Mark and Sarah King went on to form an organization called the “Telah Foundation”, which stands for the “Evolutionary Level Above Human”. The TELAH Foundation’s primary goal is to “utilize the control of the Heaven’s Gate writings and artifacts, and to prevent any inappropriate defamation of the group or the use of their work in any derivative commercial products”. In Louis Theroux’s book, The Call of the Weird, he spoke to former Heaven’s Gate members Mark and Sarah and asked them why they did not “leave” with the other cult members. Sarah answered back with a response of “Still wrestle with that today”.
Louis Theroux later commented that “The answer, I suspected, was because they loved each other. Their love trumped the love of the group”.
Other groups have been formed that continue on with the teachings of Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate cult. One particular group, “The Spectrum Twylight” (which later changed their name to “God’s Gate”), appeared briefly to be part of the original group that for whatever reason, did not graduate with the others. They claim to keep the original teachings of Heaven’s Gate sacred. They warn of former Heaven’s Gate members who continue to speak for the group that have forsaken their celibacy by marrying and having children. The pastor of the group used to be a former Mulderite of “The Gates of Fox Mulder”, a cult group that believes in the television show The X-Files as prophecy, but claimed to have been kicked out of that religion after agreeing with Marshall Applewhite’s doctrine of suicide.
The lone survivor of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, Rio DiAngelo, made the list for People magazine’s 25 “Most Intriguing People” of the year for 1997. Rio had designed the infamous Heaven’s Gate AWAY TEAM patch while he was part of the group, and later wrote a book about his experiences, called “Beyond Human Mind: the Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate”. DiAngelo said cult leader Marshall Applewhite, known as “Do”, was from another planet and taught him to be more aware, honest, and sensitive to the world around him.
“What I’ve gained from this group is phenomenal”, Rio said. “If he is just a gay music teacher from Texas, how could he teach all these advanced ways of being that really work?”
At one point in time, DiAngelo tried auctioning off the cult’s 1992 Ford van on eBay. The bidding started at $39,000, but he did not get any takers. He had signed a development deal to write a TV movie based on Heaven’s Gate, but the project never got off the ground.
In 2008, Rio DiAngelo told a Los Angeles TV station that he didn’t leave the cult because he thought the suicide plan was crazy. “There’s nothing about that group I have rejected.” Rio explained that he is against suicide and would not encourage others to do it, but later mentioned that “Heaven’s Gate wasn’t suicide”.
“That was an exit. They were done with the whole reincarnation process. It was over. They were not coming back in reincarnation at all. It was time for them to evolve.”